Africa Update – January 2021

Marines Training Africans (photo by CPL Olivia McDonald USMC March 2016)

The continent of Africa continues to see war, conflict, and strife occur in many of its countries. The United States, with its pivot to the Pacific and attention to great power competition, is reducing its commitment to Africa. The biggest news this month is that African Command has been merged with European Command.

North Africa

Troubles in Egypt. The northern Sinai Peninsular continues to be a vexing region – two members of the country’s security forces were recently killed by a roadside bomb. Egypt has been battling an Islamic State-led insurgency in the Sinai for several years. (AP, Jan 1, 2021).

Libya Conflict . . and Russia. There are a number of nations that are involved to various degrees in the Libyan conflict. Some have military personnel or proxies supporting one or the other of the factions. These supporting nations include but are not limited to Turkey, Russia, UAE, and others. Russia continues to play a role in Libya. Read more in “The Pendulum: How Russia Sways its Way to More Influence in Libya”, by Jalel Harchaoui, War on the Rocks, January 7, 2021.

Libya and the Media. A recent study shows that Libyan media outlets – particularly television channels – have played in significant role in the civil conflict since 2014. The TV stations have taken partisan positions and present specific and highly simplistic narratives to describe complex security dynamics . . . resulting in driving the polarization of public opinion. Read Mitigating the Impact of Medial Reporting of Terrorism: Libya Case Study, by Mary Fitzgerald, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT), December 2020, pdf, 22 pages.

Tunisia. Tunisia’s security forces are now better equipped to fight militants in the mountains as well as locate and destroy terrorist cells across the country. However, the country must content with the alternatives that extremism offers to a young population with few economic prospects. Francisco Serrano explains in “Putting up a fight: Tunisia’s counterterrorism successes and failures”, Middle East Institute, December 16, 2020.

Morocco. On December 10, 2020 the United States issued a proclamation entitled “Recognizing the Sovereignty of the Kingdom of Morocco over Western Sahara”. This reaffirmed the support for Morocco’s quest for autonomy over the Western Sahara territory. Many observers believe this recognition by the US was a trade-off to encourage Morocco to open up diplomatic relations with Israel.

Conflict in the Sahel

A More Effective MI Construct Needed for the Sahel. To adequately degrade the jihadist groups in the Sahel a regional cooperative approach is needed to increase the capabilities of HUMINT, SIGINT, COMINT, IMINT, and other intelligence disciplines. “The Limits of Military Intelligence in the Sahel”, by Semaj N. McDowell, Geopolitical Monitor, December 20, 2020.

UN and French-led Force in Mali. The conflict in Mali and the response by the United Nations and French-led military coalition gets a close look by Alex Teynor – a U.S. Army Infantry Officer. Read “Mali: The Tradeoff Between Impartiality and Military Aid”, Small Wars Journal, January 6, 2021.

Estonia in Mali. An Estonian Defense Force (EDF) platoon is serving with the French-led Operation Barkhane in the West African country of Mali. Operation Barkhane involves several Sahel nations as well as some European countries. Read “New EDF contingent starts Mali anti-insurgency operation service”, News, December 21, 2020.

French Casualties. Two French soldiers were killed in early January 2021 by an improvised explosive device. Three French soldiers were killed in Mali on December 27, 2020, when their vehicle hit a bomb. The soldiers were deployed to Mali as part of France’s counterterrorism mission. (The Wall Street Journal, Dec 28, 2020).

Barkhane Force. France’s Barkhane Force numbers about 5,100 troops spread across the Sahel region. The task force has been fighting jihadist groups alongside units from Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (known as the G5 Sahel Group). “Roadside Bomb Kills Two French Soldiers in Mali”, Voice of America, January 2, 2021. The Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) has claimed responsibility for the attacks against the French. (France 24, Jan 2, 2021).

Niger Attacks. Suspected Islamist militants attacked two villages in Niger with up to 80 fatalities. The attacks occurred near Niger’s western border with Mali. (BBC News, Jan 3, 2021).

Boko Haram Busy in Cameroon. Along the northern border of Cameroon – shared with Nigeria – Boko Haram fighters are engaging in a new wave of violence. In addition, a separatist group in western Cameroon is fighting to create an independent English-speaking state. “Cameroon Says Boko Haram, Separatists on Offensive”, Voice of America, January 9, 2021.

Humanitarian Aid in Africa. Although AFRICOM no longer exists some of its content is still online. One interesting interactive map details information about humanitarian aid provided to African countries. For instance, Niger received medical supplies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, humanitarian supplies to families of the Nigerien Armed Forces affected by flooding, and more.

Horn of Africa (HOA)

Strategic Approach Needed for Horn of Africa. Richard McManamon, a US Army Officer with experience in East and West Africa believes the Trump administration’s withdrawal from Somalia and diminished support for Africa in general is counterproductive. He believes it opens the door for increase influence by Russia and China and is a lost opportunity for the US to challenge China and Russia indirectly – as a part of the ‘great power competition’. “America First and Implications for US Strategy in the Horn of Africa”, Small Wars Journal, December 13, 2020.

What about Sudan? Conner Lewis, a Civil Affairs officer, recommends increased engagement with Sudan to support democratic reform and gain a geostrategic security partner. “Opportunity in Post-Revolution Sudan”, Eunomia Journal, The Civil Affairs Association, December 17, 2020.

Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis. The Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) seem to have the upper hand over the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) . . . for now. However, the ENDF faces the prospect of a protracted insurgency in the region’s mountainous interior. The Tigray region is comprised of the Tigrayan, Irob, and Kunama peoples and live along the Eritrea – Ethiopia border area. The ethnic differences within the country are being aggravated by the conflict. Read “Ethnic Federalism in Decline: Implications of Ethiopia’s Tigray Crise”, Strife Blog, by Farley Sweatman, January 4, 2021. An Ethiopian general admitted that Eritrean troops entered northern Tigray region during the conflict. (Yahoo! News, Jan 6, 2021).

Withdrawing from Somalia. President Trump ordered the withdrawal of about 700 military personnel from Somalia by early 2021. The Department of Defense issued a “Somalia Force Posture Announcement” on December 4, 2020 – framing the withdrawal as a ‘repositioning of forces’. The DoD states that most forces will be moved to Kenya or Djibouti.

Support to Withdrawal. The USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams was sent to the region to assist in the US troop withdrawal. The Williams is an Expeditionary Sea Base vessel that carries a contingent of crisis-response Marines and is known to provide a platform for the conduct of special operations training and operations. (Stars and Stripes, Dec 18, 2020). An AC-130W Stinger II gunship is in the region to provide close air support (CAS) and air interdiction if needed. The CAS would include support to troops in contact, convoy escort, and point air defense. Joseph Trevithhick describes in great detail the increased activity at Camp Lemonnier (Djibouti) that is likely due to support to the U.S. military withdrawal in “America’s East Africa Military Hub Sees Spike in Activity As Somalia Withdrawals continue”, The WarZone, December 23, 2020.

Danab Brigade. While the DoD states that this is not a change in policy one wonders about the effectiveness of the advisory effort for selected Somali units such as the elite Danab Brigade. Known as the only effective, apolitical fighting unit in the country the Danab will soon be vulnerable to political interference from Somalia’s government. The 1,150-member force is the most elite unit in Somalia due to its far superior training and equipment. Read “As U.S. forces leave, Somalia’s elite fighting unit fears becoming a political pawn”, The Washington Post, December 29, 2020.

CIA Employee Killed in Somalia. A paramilitary officer working with Somali security forces died of his wounds as a result of an IED attack on his vehicle. He was a former US Navy SEAL.

Britain Training Efforts in Somalia. The British Ministry of Defense said it plans to double the number of Somali National Army soldiers it trains in infantry skills. It will likely train up to 1,000 Somali soldiers in 2021. There is a 26-man unit conducting training in marksmanship, patrolling, medical aid, and counter IED techniques in an eight-week course of training. “Britain to double number of Somali infantry soldiers it trains this year”, UPI, January 15, 2021.


Russia’s Escapades in Africa. The African continent has become the main theater of operations for the Wagner group. It has been present in Libya since 2018 and in the Central Africa Republic (CAR) for the past few years. Rad more in “The Wagner Group: Intrigue, War, and Resource Extraction in Africa and Beyond”, by Alessandro Gagaridis, Geopolitical Monitor, December 17, 2020.

Resetting Relationships. Michael Shurkin believes that future president Joe Biden will have the opportunity to reset the U.S. relationship with sub-Saharan Africa. (RAND, Dec 10, 2020).

Podcast, Videos, and Movies

Podcast – Proxies and American Strategy in Africa. The U.S. withdrawal from Somalia has put the U.S. military involvement in Africa back in the news. Two guests are featured in this podcast on this topic. Retired Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks was the former commander of Special Operations Command Africa from 2017 to 2019. Dr. Eli Berman is the co-editor of the book Proxy Wars: Suppressing Violence through Local Agents. Irregular Warfare Podcast, December 23, 2020, 56 mins.

Video – Islamizing Rebel Governance. Dr. Chris Anzalone, a Research Assistant at the Krulak Center (USMAC). In this video he examines the advent of Islamic rebel governing projects in different regions of the world. He looks at how al-Shabaab operates as a governing organization. YouTube, January 29, 2021, 1 hr 30 mins.

Podcast – The Congo Crisis. This podcast is a discussion of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its implications for Central Africa. The Congo Crisis: The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Coming in From the Cold: Untold Stories From the Cold War, Episode 23, December 2020.


Photo: Marines Training Africans (photo by CPL Olivia McDonald USMC March 2016)

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